Fourth Season Skills #3: Strategies for dressing. How to keep your feet warm.

Fourth Season Skills is a series of articles about riding bicycles in the winter. Topics will include everything you need to know about equipment choices, clothing, riding skills, and how to stay warm. Even in the harshest temperatures. I will draw on my many years of experience living and cycling in Northern Minnesota. I have commuted by bike in all four seasons for 12 years. I am a veteran of the Arrowhead 135, one of the hardest winter races in the world. I am a winter camper and winter camping instructor.

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Feet were definitely my weak spot when I first started to ride in colder weather. Colder being defined as anything below the freezing mark. I can’t count how many times I came home with toes that were numb. Then enduring the painful process of bringing warmth and feeling back to those toes. I mean real pain. Laying on my bed trying not to scream, whimper or cry as warmth returned to my toes. Anyone that has experienced this pain knows what I’m talking about.

I spent the year of 2006 training and preparing for my first attempt at riding the Arrowhead Ultra 135. A winter adventure race known for it’s brutally cold temperatures. I knew I had to figure out the feet thing before I could even think about pulling up to the start line. Even though it was only 10 years ago, a lot has changed since then. In 2006 there was very little information available on-line about riding a bicycle in winter. The first commercially available fatbike, the Surly Pugsley, had only been on the market for a year. Up until then, winter biking meant riding a road bike in temps in the 30’s and 40’s Fahrenheit. The bicycle industry made “winter gear” and clothing. Most of it was worthless for keeping you warm in anything colder then the 20’s Fahrenheit. The common response for keeping feet warm was to buy shoe covers for your summer biking shoes. In reality, these lowered the temperature your feet would stay warm in by, at most, ten or fifteen degrees. I needed to prepare for temps as low as -30degF and be able to keep my feet warm for 24-35 hours.

I finally sought out information posted on the internet from people who had ridden in those temps in similar events similar to the AH135. People like Mike Curiak and Dave Gray. Dave was the man behind the design of the Pugsley at Surly. He had ridden the AH135.

There is one thing I learned from this investigation. It can be summed up with two words. Remember these two words: Air Space.

You must create an environment for your feet to stay warm in. This is done largely by giving your toes airspace in whatever type of footwear you decide to wear. It can be a pair of hiking boots you get on clearance for $50 like I did. Or it can be a pair of 45NRTH Wolfgar’s for $450. 45NRTH may not appreciate me writing this, but either option will work just as well at -30degF if you fit them properly. If you have the means to buy the Wolfgar’s they are a great option.

Let’s back up a bit. The problem with using your summer shoes for winter riding is the fit. Presumably most people buy a summer bicycling shoe, whether it be a cycling specific shoe or “tennis shoe”, to fit snuggly with a thin to medium thickness sock. When temperatures drop, the prevailing thought is to layer two socks or wear a thicker sock to keep your feet warm. There are two problems with this.

  1. The whole reason for layering or wearing a thicker sock is to provide more insulation. What provides that insulation is the loft of the sock. Or you could think of it as the fluffiness of the thicker sock. It’s the loft that holds the warmth next to your skin. However, if you cram your foot with that sock into a shoe that already fits snug, what happens to all the warmth holding loft? It gets compressed. Once compressed it loses it’s loft and it’s warmth holding properties. It no longer insulates.
  2. When you cram your foot with thicker socks into an already snug shoe the fit is much tighter and ends up restricting blood flow to your foot. Less blood flow = colder feet.

I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard cyclist say they can’t understand why their feet get cold so quickly even when they wear thicker socks. They blame it on their shoe covers. They think the shoe covers they bought are not working. In reality it’s the snug shoe fit that is preventing their feet from staying warm.

In cold weather conditions you need to wear shoes, or preferably boots, that are at least one size bigger then what you normally wear. Even better for extreme cold is a boot at least two sizes bigger. I remember Mike Curiak saying he wore a Lake Winter Cycling boot that was five sizes bigger for temps in the -40 to -50 range in the Alaska endurance races he did.

It’s the extra air space that allows the full loft of your socks to insulate your feet.

Here is the system I use:

On my feet I wear a simple polypro liner sock combined with a Smartwool Hiking sock. This is the only thing I wear for socks whether it’s 50deg F or -30deg F. That’s an 80 degree temperature range. With the exception of a vapor barrier, I don’t add any other layers as it gets colder.

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The vapor barrier I use is made by Integral Designs. A plastic bag will work nearly as well. I will wear these layered between the liner and the wool sock. I won’t ever use these for rides or commutes under an hour long. On longer rides in temperatures below zero degrees Fahrenheit it traps any moisture from your feet inside the VB sock. By not allowing the moisture to pass through to your wool sock it keeps that all important insulated layer completely dry. Wetness will rob heat from feet. Moisture also decreases the loft of your sock thus decreasing the insulating properties of that outer sock layer.

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I will wear my summer shoes in dry conditions down to a temperature of about 35degF. In wet conditions up to 50degF or any conditions below 35degF down to about  zero degF I wear my Lake MXZ302 Winter Boots. Essentially I wear these boots from November until April in the climate I live in. Back in 2006 when I bought my first pair of winter specific cycling boots, the Lake MXZ301, it was the only winter boot on the market. 45NRTH wasn’t even a company yet. A few years ago I replace the 301’s with a newer 302 model. Since then they have redesigned it and released the 303. I bought one size bigger than I normally wear. If I understand it correctly the 45NRTH winter boots are sized so you buy the same size you wear in the summer. The required “air space” is built into the fit for each size.

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When the temperatures drop below the zero degree mark Fahrenheit, as they often do in winter here, I switch to platform pedals and a pair of insulated hiking boots I bought on summer clearance for $50. Two sizes bigger then my normal foot size. The boot fits snug in the heel. The bigger size gives me generous “air space” in the toe box. I’ve taken this boot down to -32degF and never got cold toes.

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The insulation provided by the wool sock combined with the air space in the toe box provides an enclosed area that maintains the heat and warmth my feet put out. A windproof insulated boot keeps the heat in that air space intact and does not allow it to be pulled out. Obviously you would not want to wear a ventilated summer boot. It would allow all the heat to be moved away from the foot.

For longer rides below 20degF I will add some warmth to the toe box with a chemical activated hand warmer. I’ve found hand warmers work better than the toe warmers. These type of warmers require oxygen to keep them activated. The air space provides this.

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In really extreme cold with windchills in the -30degF range and colder I will add an outside wind protection layer. I use a product made for downhill skiing. It’s a neoprene front of the boot cover. It says it will add 20 degrees of warmth. I’ve found that to be accurate.

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If you get nothing else from this article, just remember it’s the “Air Space” in the toe box of your footwear that allows you to maintain warmth. It’s not the price of the boots or the number of socks you wear that determines how warm your feet will be.


Stay warm and happy biking.


Fourth Season Skills #2: Strategies for dressing. Hands.

Fourth Season Skills is a series of articles about riding bicycles in the winter. Topics will include everything you need to know about equipment choices, clothing, riding skills, and how to stay warm. Even in the harshest temperatures. I will draw on my many years of experience living and cycling in Northern Minnesota. I have commuted by bike in all four seasons for 12 years. I am a veteran of the Arrowhead 135, one of the hardest winter races in the world. I am a winter camper and winter camping instructor.

Back when I decided to start biking through the winter, one of the biggest issues for me was keeping my extremities warm. I had rarely ventured out in the winter on two wheels in any temperatures below the freezing mark. Every person has a weak part. A part of their body they struggle to keep warm. For me, and many others, it happens to be either the hands or the feet. Sometimes both. At first I blamed it on poor circulation. Over time I learned anyone can learn to keep their hands and feet warm if they use the proper clothing. Clothing specific to the conditions they are in. Keep in mind everyone is different. Each person has to find what works for them. What works for me, may not work for you. It’s a process of experimenting with different clothing and finding what works for you.


The author dressed for -28degF during the 2007 Arrowhead Ultra 135.

The first part of dressing to keep your hands and feet warm may appear to have nothing to do with your hands or feet. That is, your core needs to be properly dressed. Your core being defined as your upper torso. The part of your body between your waistline and the base of your neck. This is where most of your vital organs are. In cold temperatures, if you don’t keep your core warm your body will restrict blood flow to your extremities. It does this to rob your extremities of warmth to sustain life by keeping your vital organs working. So the first step to keep your hands and feet warm is to make sure your core is warm. I’ll get into how to dress your core in a later post.

If your core isn’t warm, it will be nearly impossible to keep your extremities warm. Be careful not to overdress your core. This will cause a build up of sweat and moisture. Dampness also robs you of warmth. It’s a fine line. For me it’s also true my hands will sweat if I have gloves that are too warm. Winters where I live have a range of winter temperatures from 50degF down to -30degF. Windchills can reach into the -60degF to -70degF range at the coldest. For this reason I have found I need different hand wear for different temperature ranges. All of my winter hand wear has some measure of wind protection. When temperatures get down close to or below the freezing mark any gloves without some type of wind protection are pretty useless.

Here is what works for me for different temperatures:

55degF to 65degF I may or may not wear hand protection in this range. In light winds and sunny conditions I won’t wear any. In windy conditions, or on foggy days I’ll wear a light glove. In rain I’ll wear something a little heavier and more water resistant. 007

Any temps below 50degF I will wear a base layer. My favorite is a polypro liner glove. I’ve tried wool liners. They don’t hold their shape as well and tend to hold more moisture if my hands start to perspire. 003

55degF down to 35degF: These are a little bit heavier Pearl Izumi biking gloves. Not sure what model. They change their designs quite a bit. I’ve found Pearl Izumi to be somewhat more durable than other brands I’ve tried. I combine these with the liner gloves. 006

35degF down to 20degF: For this range I switch to a heavier Pearl Izumi glove with liner.002

20degF down to about 5degF: I prefer a “lobster” style three finger glove for this range. These have been very durable with very little sign of wear for 6 or 7 winters of use. Again, I use a liner with them at all times. Very warm mitts. I’ve found not all lobster style gloves are comparable. Some wouldn’t keep my hands warm at 30degF. The only way to know is buy a pair and try them. When I find a glove that works, it’s usually worth the money.004

5degF down to about -15degF: Vulpine Adaptive Icebike Mittens. I bought these back in 2006. This is an earlier synthetic version of the hard to get Empire Canvas Works Icebike Mittens. For me this is a local product. These are the all time warmest mitts you can buy. They will last you a lifetime as well. Very high quality materials and sewing. Generous insulation, high gauntlets, everything you need to keep your hands warm. So warm I can’t wear them when the temp gets above 10degF. My hands start to sweat. Empire Canvas is a small cottage industry business. They produce products in batches. They may only make a batch of Icebike Mitts every couple of years. When they’re gone, that’s it until they make another batch. If you can get a pair, they are worth every cent. 001

Grabber Chemical hand warmers. I use these more for my toes than for my hands. If you have chronically cold hands it may be worth trying these. Make sure to open them up 15-30 minutes before you put them in your gloves. They need oxygen to trigger the chemical reaction. They also need a small bit of air space in your gloves to keep the reaction going. When I use them for commuting I extend the life of them by sealing them in a Ziplock freezer bag and pushing all the air out as I close it once I get to work. This stops the reaction. Then I can use the same pair for the trip home in the afternoon. iPhone upload 006

For temperatures below -15degF I will use the above Icebike Mitts or ride my Pugsley with some handlebar pogies. This type of equipment was rare as recent as ten years ago. Nowadays there are many brands of pogies. From companies like 45NRTH, Revelate Designs, Bar Mitts, and many others. My pogies are ATV handlebar mitts from Cabelas. When I bought mine back in 2006 they cost $19.99 plus shipping. They’ve kept my hands warm down into the -30degF range without a problem. If you can’t afford bicycling specific barmitts, there are cheaper options. Bitter cold riding 001

Bar mitts on my Pugsley during a bitter cold morning commute with temps in the -20degF.

I went from someone who thought I would never be able to keep my hands warm to someone who’s never found his bottom limit yet. I’ve ridden in -32degF temps with -70degF windchills without getting cold hands. It’s just a matter of experimenting with different options and seeing what works for you.

Keep in mind when buying winter clothing that you don’t need to buy clothes made specifically for cycling. When it comes to gloves, you can try anything. For example gloves made for other outdoor activities like skiing, or a pair of leather or canvas gloves at your local farm supply of home center. Those options can keep your hands just as warm and will sometimes be cheaper.

Figure out what works for you and get out there and ride.




Fourth Season Skills #1: It’s the wind.

Fourth Season Skills is a series of articles about riding bicycles in the winter. Topics will include everything you need to know about equipment choices, clothing, riding skills, and how to stay warm. Even in the harshest temperatures. I will draw on my many years of experience living and cycling in Northern Minnesota. I have commuted by bike in all four seasons for 12 years. I am a veteran of the Arrowhead 135, one of the hardest winter races in the world. I am a winter camper and winter camping instructor.

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Ground blizzard during a commute to work.

You choice of clothing is one of the most important parts of being comfortable while riding in cold weather. It is possible to be comfortable, meaning warm, in almost any temperature once you understand the basics of heat loss. And then wearing clothes to help prevent the loss of heat.

There are four basic ways heat loss can happen:

1) Radiation: example-uncovered head or lack of insulation

2) Conduction: direct physical contact with something cold. Example: bare metal, water, sweat soaked clothes, rain.

3) Convection: Your body generates heat to keep the layer of air directly next to your skin warm. Your clothing maintains this warm layer by trapping it in the dead air spaces of fabric. That warm air can quickly be stolen by wind if proper shells are not worn.

4) Evaporation: Perspiration-heat is required to disperse vaporized moisture. Breathing causes the displacement of warm moist air by cold dry air.

Today I’m going to talk about convection. Your body works hard to maintain a core temperature and in turn a layer of heated air near your body. Your clothing choices, if done thoughtfully, insulates or traps that layer of heated air next to your body. A top layer that is windproof further helps to hold that heat in.

I always tell people when the temperature drops below the freezing mark I will pay as much, or more, attention to the wind speed then to the air temperature. The wind is what robs your body of the heat you are producing. The wind will pull heat out of every little opening in our clothing. Or through your clothing if it’s not windproof. Your body responds by working harder to maintain the layer of heated air next to your body. The higher the wind speed, the quicker the heat loss. You should also factor in your speed on the bicycle.  For example, an increase of speed on a downhill increases the overall wind speed. This creates an elevated level of heat loss during the descent.

From my experience I have found that it’s easier to maintain warmth with an air temperature of say 5F/-15C degrees with no wind as compared to a much warmer air temperature of 32F/0C degrees with a wind speed of 25-30 mph.

Yes, there are times when it is easier to stay warm when the thermometer is reading 5 degrees then when it’s reading 32 degrees. So always pay attention to the wind speed when planning what you are going to wear for your next fourth season bicycle ride.

Next on this series: Strategies for dressing to maintain a comfortable level of warmth.